Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : October 3, 2004
* On Wandering Grass Genes
* Keeping Our Eyes on the Green
* Biotech Grass Poses No Danger
* Coming-Out in the Cornfield
* Indian Biotech Regulatory Reforms: Stop talking, Just do it!
* Battle Over Biotech: Conference Looks at GM
* GM Rice Controversy Boils Over
* GM Crops: Their Development, Uses, and Risks - A New Book
* Fred Gould Wins Humboldt Award
* Patents: Misguided Attack Threatens Growth
On Wandering Grass Genes
- Sivramiah Shantharam Biologistics International, Ellicott City, MD.
On the newly observed long distance dispersal of creeping bent grass pollen. Apropos the editorial "Travels of Bioengineered Genes" in The NY Times datelined September 30, 2004, it seems to be repeating a "non-existent" fear about the consequences of the spread of bioengineered genes in the environment from the creeping bent grass.
The grass in question is itself an introduced species into American suburban ecosystem that is a highly manicured and contained. What the EPA researchers have just demonstrated is that genes from this grass flows as far as 13 miles away, and perhaps even beyond, thanks to the power of modern biotechnology. That grass pollen (genes?) flow long distance carried by wind was well known.
The bioengineered gene in question is a gene that enables the creeping bent grass to withstand the application of the herbicide Roundup to control weeds with ease. This gene is only useful only when apply the herbicide. Otherwise, it is of no consequence when it escapes into the wild grasses as no one will be spraying the herbicide in the wild. Even if some weeds have to be controlled in the wild at a future date, one can always use another herbicide. If there is no spraying of the herbicide in the wild for long, the gene will be diluted out without the selection pressure, a well known principle in population genetics.
So the consequences of this herbicide Glyphosate bioengineered gene escape are not significant at all. EPA researchers have clearly mentioned in their research paper that they have no evidence that the long distance traveling gene has introgressed into the non-target grasses. This once again proves the fact that pollens travel farther than the genes without any discernible environmental consequences.
May the tribe of Professor Jussi Tammisola of the University of Helsinki flourish. The fantastic scientific commentary on the recent publication in PNAS by Lydia Wartrud et al on the grass pollen drift is scintillating to say the least. Prof. Tammisola's comments are precisely a risk assessment specialist would evaluate, and a reasonable analysis of the situation would suggest that thee is no significant impact to the environment or biodiversity by the long distance travels of pollen. It is really tiring to keep on repeating the same adage about pollen flow.
I strongly believe that USDA, APHIS must permit the commercialization of transgenic creeping bent grass and ask the applicants to monitor consequences of pollen flow and report back to them. Should there be any real threat to the environment or biodiversity, then appropriate remedial action can be taken at the time.
Keeping Our Eyes on the Green
- Bill Horan, Truth About Trade and Technology - Rockwell City, IA
"In creating, the only hard thing's to begin," wrote the 19th-century poet James Russell Lowell. "A grass blade's no easier to make than an oak."
The scientists who have been working for years to perfect a variety of biotech enhanced grass understand the truth in that statement. Now they may be learning it all over again, in the wake of the recent news about biotech golf courses in our future. America's vigorous system of regulating biotechnology is seeing to that.
Not every golfer pays attention to horticulture, but those who do know that many of their favorite courses feature a kind of grass called creeping bentgrass. This plant is known for its fine leaves of blue-green color. It grows in dense patches that are ideal for everything from one of Ben Crenshaw's legendary putts to one of Tiger Woods' smashing drives.
Creeping bentgrass requires so much maintenance--lots of water, constant mowing, frequent aerating, and large amounts of fertilizer--that few people grow it on their lawns at home. But golfers love the stuff, and so golf courses like to provide it for them.
Biotechnology may soon offer golfers an improved product. Scientists have bred a genetically enhanced form of creeping bentgrass that resists a particular kind of herbicide. And that means golf courses will be able to enhance the environmental safeguards we all appreciate while controlling weeds. Everybody wins, from golfers who want a great sporting experience to course managers trying to keep down costs to environmentalists who worry (sometimes too much) about herbicide use.
Last week, however, the media reported on a new study showing that the biotech variety of creeping bentgrass may breed with related species many miles away. The enemies of biotechnology hit the panic button and starting screaming about the invention of "superweeds" that nobody can destroy. As usual, most of what they said was utter nonsense.
For one thing, just because biotech grass can resist one form of weed killer doesn't mean that it will resist all or them. In this sense, biotech grass won't ever get "out of control."
And once again, the point must be made – the study did not conclude that the biotech enhanced grass was unsafe in any way. That's because it isn't.
Yet the study did raise several important issues, and they are worth addressing.
First of all, it proved that our methods of regulating biotechnology really do work. We must recognize that the study in question was based upon observations made at a test field--i.e., breeders were busy learning about this kind of biotech grass, which has not been approved for widespread use. And if they're going to learn about something, they need to test it. Who can argue with that?
The folks in white lab jackets want to know many things about this new plant, including whether it can pollinate with plants in remote locations. They learned that this could in fact happen. Although most of the gene flow took place within a mile downwind of the biotech field, in one case it was observed several miles away.
This situation--discovered and publicized by the biotechnologists themselves--now requires a solution. And the solution surely isn't to use the finding as a propaganda tool, as the enemies of biotechnology are trying to do.
The next, logical step is to learn how this gene flow might be prevented, perhaps by creating physical barriers to the pollination. A golf course that uses bitoech grass, for instance, might be required to surround itself by trees that would block the spread of wind-borne pollen. Another possibility is to let golf courses to what golf courses do best: Mow their lawns so often that the grass doesn't have a chance to pollinate in the first place. Finally, it might be made available only to certified users.
Whatever the case, not a single blade of this biotech grass will show up on a golf course anywhere until all of these questions have been answered to the satisfaction of serious scientists. The experiments are ongoing: Just this year, the government has approved 20 separate tests of biotech creeping bentgrass. It's all part of a detailed assessment.
At some point in the not-to-distant future, these assessments will be complete. We'll know how biotechnology can help us build better golf courses. And when we do, we'll be well on our way to benefiting from even more promising developments, such as drought-tolerant grass. While green golf courses that require less water can get some people real excited – I can't help thinking about the tremendous contribution a drought-tolerant grass will provide in our efforts to conserve water as we feed and nourish a growing population.
It all goes to show that the grass may be greener on the other side of the fence. But you still have to mow it.
Bill Horan, a Board Member for Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) grows corn, soybeans and grains on a family farm in Northwest Iowa. Over 50% of the crops grown on his farm are produced under contract for various end-users.
Biotech Grass Poses No Danger
- Val Giddings, San Jose Mercury News. October 2, 2004 http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/9818213.htm?1c
A Sept. 22 story posted in the Mercury News' online edition is alarmist by suggesting imminent danger from a new biotech grass. Developed to reduce herbicides used to maintain golf courses, this innovation provides important environmental benefits.
Gene flow from plants is well known and understood by farmers who successfully isolate high value crops from adjacent fields. Farmers cooperate with their neighbors to grow crops of all types (biotech, hybrids, identity-preserved grains, and even pricey organic foods) for their specific markets.
This biotech grass presents no safety risk. This grass, like all other biotech products, will be reviewed for safety to humans and the environment by federal agencies, including the USDA, FDA, and EPA before release into the marketplace.
L. Val Giddings, Vice president, food and agriculture. Biotechnology Industry Organization, Washington, D.C.
Coming-Out in the Cornfield
'Harald Nitschke, Farmer Advocate of Genetic Engineering'
- Claudia Ehrenstein, Die Welt (Germany), Sept. 29, 2004
The pros and cons of green genetic engineering in Germany have so far been discussed mainly by politicians and scientists, biotechnology entrepreneurs, environmentalists and Greenpeace activists – with much excitement, great passion and a good deal of polemics.
Harald Nitschke (age 51) by contrast is reassuringly calm and composed. He is a farmer in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, is the manager of Agar Translator's note: most likely a typo for AgRar. GmbH in Ramin [located] in the district of Uecker-Randow close to the Polish border, and describes himself as being "down-to-earth".
This year, Nitschke has participated in the test cultivation of genetically engineered corn. The just under 30 locations in seven [of Germany's] Federal Länder are still largely undisclosed. Now Nitschke is the first farmer deploying genetically engineered plants to appear in public. This step has long been premeditated.
"Clarification is what I'm after", he says, and criticizes the militant opposition to green genetic engineering as a "modern [form of] witch hunting". The heated debates over potential risks of green genetic engineering swiftly recede into the background on the approximately 15-hectare corn field.
Healthy and robust, the genetically engineered corn stands in the center of the field. It is surrounded by conventional corn which acts as a protective fringe. In it, at least ten percent of the plants are ailing, leaves and corn cobs are broken. These are the visible signs of [the corn] being infected by the European corn borer. "Problems with this pest have continually increased over the past few years," Nitschke said. The small moths lay their eggs on the underside of the corn leaves. Their larvae feed through the stalk of the plant, starting at the top and going down. They can hardly be reached with insecticides. Similarly, biological control [measures] using a natural enemy of the European corn borer have only limited success. The larvae spend the winter in the stubbles on the cornfield. Thus, plowing in the spring was thus far the only measure that could be taken to halt the spreading of the European corn borer.
The cultivation of genetically engineered corn now presents itself as a new option. A bacterial gene in the genetic material of the plant controls the production of a protein that is deadly for the European corn borer. This so-called Bt toxin has a specifically targeted impact and has been used for decades in organic cultivation. Nitschke had already read a lot about Bt corn in professional journals. When a representative of the US seed company Pioneer approached him in the spring, he immediately agreed to participate in the test cultivation at his own costs.
"I wanted to see for myself whether it works", said Nitschke. He talked about the genetically engineered corn with his partner and with his son as well. Whenever his farmer neighbors complained this summer about the European corn borer, he found it difficult not to give anything away. Only a few of his employees knew about the genetically engineered corn. Nitschke plants corn on a total of 500 hectares: "For my own needs as feedstuffs." 1,500 feeder bulls, 620 dairy cows and 200 suckler cows belong to the "Ramin company", which employs about 50 people.
The operation developed out of an Agriculture Collective (LPG, Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft, entity of the former German Democratic Republic collective farming system). Nitschke was its deputy director during the days of the German Democratic Republic. He was born and raised in Ramin [and] studied agriculture in Berlin. After the Wende (fall of the wall between East and West Germany), he participated in his homeland in the [political] roundtable meetings (Runde Tische). Today he is a member of the town council and of the district parliament (Kreistag) [representing] the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), [and] is president of the District Farmers' Union (Kreisbauernverband).
His interest in green genetic engineering is a far cry from blind belief in progress, it is nothing but pragmatic. "The official unemployment rate in the region is at 30 percent", says Nitschke and is convinced [that] "green genetic engineering can help secure jobs." For the European corn borer not only causes immense crop losses in certain regions in Germany. It also encourages fungal decay and the concomitant production of toxic mycotoxins. These, however, can present risks to the health of animals and also impact the quality of the milk.
In the future, genetically engineered corn could help produce animal feed of higher quality at lower prices, Nitschke hopes. If he could, he would begin cultivating genetically engineered corn on a large scale as early as next year. For the time being, he is going to harvest [his small field of] genetically engineered corn today. Scientists at the University of Rostock will be taking samples of the [corn] to test whether the genetically engineered corn has propagated unchecked.
Nitschke takes those tests in stride; he is convinced [that] "the benefit is greater than the risk." Illustration: Harald Nitschke (51) surrounded by his genetically engineered corn: the plants are healthy and robust. The European corn borer cannot harm them.
Weighing Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Crops in Africa
- CIMMYT Newsletter, October 1, 2004
Should Africa embrace genetically modified crops to help feed its hungry people?
That question is explored by a recent paper entitled "Debunking the Myths of GM Crops for Africa: The Case of Bt Maize in Kenya." The paper compares the benefits of genetically modified crops to information available on the risks, and finds that most objections are not backed by evidence. Hugo De Groote, Stephen Mugo, and David Bergvinson from CIMMYT, along with Ben Odhiambo of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, conducted the study, which argues for a discussion based on scientific evidence and evaluation of potential benefits against concerns.
Genetically modified crops have been successful in many countries, including Canada and the US, where they have increased yields, lowered labor and cultivation costs, and reduced the use of chemical inputs. Genetic engineering has the potential to enhance food security and nutritional quality in ways not possible with conventional technology. Because the technology is contained in the seed, it is easy to distribute to farmers. This is particularly important in Africa, where extension services have largely collapsed and transport infrastructure is poor.
Concerns about deploying genetically modified crops in Africa include food safety, ethics, environmental risk, loss of landrace biodiversity, and the lack of appropriate biosafety regulations. Although long-term effects need to be analyzed, current studies by national and international organizations reveal no demonstrated toxic or nutritionally harmful effects of foods derived from genetically modified crops.
Sounding Out Public Opinion
The study by de Groote and his colleagues focused on Kenya, where maize, the main food crop, is planted on 30% of arable lands. It drew on a variety of data sources, including participatory rural appraisals and farmer and consumer surveys. De Groote thinks it is important to make research results understandable to the general public so everyone can participate in the debate.
To gauge awareness and attitudes about genetically modified crops, the researchers interviewed 604 consumers, only half of whom were aware of them. Many appreciated the benefits but worried about potential negative effects on health and the environment, especially on local plant varieties. De Groote says consumers are increasingly aware of genetically modified food and generally accept it, but their concerns about environmental safety and biodiversity have to be addressed.
Several seed companies in Kenya have expressed interest in producing and distributing Bt maize seed, which offers an effective and practical method for reducing stem borer damage in maize. Genetically engineered Bt maize contains a gene from the soil-dwelling bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin that helps control certain pests but is not harmful to humans or livestock. The Bt gene was first introduced into the commercial maize market in 1996. It has provided control for many pests and could help decrease pesticide use.
"The major surprise was that, contrary to the usual claims, Bt maize is very likely to benefit poor farmers and small seed companies," says de Groote. "Stem borers are a real concern for farmers, especially in low-potential coastal and dry areas."
Farmers in Kenya lose 400,000 tons, or about 14%, of their maize to stem borers. That is roughly the amount the country imports each year. De Groote says Bt maize alone will not solve this problem, but could help reduce losses and increase food security.
The IRMA Project
In 1999, the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) project was launched in Kenya to develop borer resistant varieties using both conventional breeding and biotechnology. Kenya already had experience with genetically modified crops and had biosafety policies in place. IRMA, a collaborative project between CIMMYT and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, receives financial support from the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.
Before initiating the project, all parties involved agreed that transformed plants would carry only the gene of interest, without marker genes; that transgenic crops would only be developed for countries with appropriate biosafety regulations; and that only genes in the public domain would be used. They also agreed that the project would work under the highest scientific standards. When the project ends, other countries in Africa will be able to evaluate results from Kenya's experience and decide for themselves which path to follow.
"I hope that the results will be accepted not only by the scientific community but also by the general population, in Africa as well as in the developed world," says de Groote. "I also hope they will put to rest some of the major concerns about Bt maize for Africa."
To make informed choices possible, the researchers contend that scientists in Africa need hands-on experience with the new technology. They need to test and adapt it using the appropriate regulatory framework and precautions. Further, the researchers believe that the technologies need to be developed in a participatory approach, since African farmers and consumers have the right to choose technologies based on the best knowledge available. They should not be denied the chance to improve their livelihoods as a result of an academic debate in which they are not included.
For more information: Hugo De Groote - firstname.lastname@example.org; Stephen Mugo - email@example.com
Indian Biotech Regulatory Reforms: Stop talking, Just do it!
- S. Shantharam, BioSpectrum (India), September 08, 2004
Close on the heels of the global biotechnology conference in Delhi sponsored by FICCI, MSSRF and ISAAA, every Tom, Dick and Harry has spoken on the need for reforming the biotechnology regulatory system in India. Some say Indian biotech regulatory system is too lax, some say it is too tough and yet some say it is inept and ineffective. Perhaps, there is some truth in all of these. But, is there a solution to the problem? There is, but not the way they are going about it.
Indian bureaucracy has invented the phrase "single window" clearance system as a cure all for every ill of the permit and license Raj system. It meant different things to different people. What it meant to Kapil Sibal, the Minister of State for Science and Technology when he suggested the government would have single-window system for biotechnology is anybody's guess! At least one anti-GM activist thinks that it means lessening the regulatory burden and making it easier for the industry. The rest don't think so. It simply means providing administrative convenience of sending in your biotech application through one door without having to run from pillar to post. It does not mean that all the confusion and the turf battle within and among the ministries are over. In fact, it has just begun with ICMR throwing its hat into the ring. It certainly does not mean that the regulatory review will be speeded up, as the system itself has not been designed to put a timely process in place. It will take a long time.
Then, there is a suggestion that GM crops must be covered by insurance to protect the poor Indian farmer. There is also a demand for socio-economic and ethical impact assessment of the technology and the products. Can you imagine all these issues being handled by a regulatory system that was originally cobbled together to assess biosafety and environmental impact of GM crops? There is no way all these issues can be handled by a regulatory system whose ostensible purpose is to assure the public of the safety of biotechnology and its products. This is not to say that other issues are not important, but it is just that these issues should be decided by specialized experts. Socio-economic and ethical issues are best studied by academic experts and scholars. And after a thorough public discussion and discourse a suitable public policy must be evolved to determine if those issues are best handled through a regulatory regimen.
For now, India is struggling to put in place a scientifically rigorous biosafety and environmental impact assessment system and that is not hard to do in this day and age with so much of resource and expertise available around the world just for asking. Biotechnology regulatory oversight is not rocket science. Countries around the world have been doing it for decades now and if India is serious, it can call in experts to put together an effective and transparent regulatory review system for GM crops quickly and get on with the business of safe biotechnology development, pronto! Almost everyone who is talking on biotech regulatory system in India has not even read an environmental risk assessment document, much less carried out one.
It is no ones case that GM crops do not need regulatory oversight. The squabble is about the level of regulatory scrutiny that should be conferred on GM crops. How does one decide the level of regulatory scrutiny? By simply preparing an ex-ante risk assessment using the best possible scientific rigor and determining the specific risks and then exploring the options to manage or mitigate those risks in a cost effective way. It is equally important to assess the risks of not deploying the GM option as well. GM crops cannot and should not be considered "risky" just because some feel it is risky.
All of us would be wiser to realize that regulatory oversight has a cost and it better be cost effective regulations. Otherwise, we will be denying the potential benefits of the technology by making it prohibitively expensive. To the best of my knowledge, no one in RCGM or GEAC has prepared an environmental risk assessment document for any of the of GM crops, based on which they have made their regulatory decisions so far. Surely, they have done their own "seat of the pants" review of some kind or other so far. Because it was not systematic and followed any standard methodology, it took more than six years to get the first GM Bt-cotton to the market place.
Civil society groups are crying about lack of transparency and I suspect even the applicants would appreciate a dose of the same to comply with the regulatory requirements. I suspect that the lack of transparency in the system is because they cannot explain the rational for making their decisions. Having been an author of thousands of environmental risk assessments, I can confidently tell that there is no need to hide anything about regulatory decisions on GM crops, as there is nothing to hide. Both the regulators and the applicants must do everything possible to make as much data and information public as possible. Both must realize that in this day and age when the GM crop technology is under so much of fire, everyone involved must do everything possible to assuage public concerns and do not do it just to satisfy some activists.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon must be congratulated for her boldness to announce the other day that Biocon has made all its clinical tests data public through its website. The agricultural biotech industry should follow the lead of Biocon in this regard and earn public trust and confidence. They can really beat the activists in their game by winning over the public directly.
The government is wasting its time by talking to people who are clueless about setting up a regulatory regimen. The only sane and balanced view I have heard in all this cacophony is an editorial entitled "Biotech Watchdog-A Single Regulator' a welcome idea" in the pages of The Financial Express datelined August 15, 2004 (http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=65882). Lobbying by one group or another to influence the regulatory system will continue, but the policy makers and administrators know better to put competent people in-charge and give them a free hand to do the right thing.
The need of the hour is a statutorily independent national biotechnology regulatory commission that will serve as a policy advisory body and administer a technically competent group of regulatory experts with training in environmental risk assessment. The commission's members can be drawn from different walks of life with adequate representation from all the stakeholders to ensure transparency for which everyone is crying. It will go a long way in earning pubic trust and confidence and facilitate biotechnology development for the benefit of all.
Dr. Shanthu Shantharam is the President of a biotechnology affairs consulting firm, Biologistics International in Maryland, USA.
Battle Over Biotechnology: Conference Looks at Genetically Modified Organisms
- Catherine Smibert, ZENIT - The World Seen From Rome, Sept. 30, 2004 http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=59692
Rome - Participants and press people alike found themselves highly stirred during a biotechnology conference held at the Gregorian University last week. That's exactly what the organizers of the event were hoping for.
The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences had joined forces to present the meeting entitled "Feeding a Hungry World: The Moral Imperative of Biotechnology?" They aimed to investigate the complex moral debate surrounding the use of genetically modified foods or organisms, GMOs, as an answer to feeding the 1.5 billion people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition.
In his presentation, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences said that their hope was to delve deeper into the issue, "to collaborate what Pope Paul VI called the drama of hunger in the world."
U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson agreed. "Feeding the hungry is a question of life and death," he said. "It is a moral challenge of great magnitude that demands we explore all options to help the poor and assist them in their own environments to become self-sustaining in their food production."
Despite the conference's notable speakers, who represented the scientific, ecclesial and rural realms, the event drew accusations of being too one-sided by tending to favor the use of GMOs to be grown by the poor and starving. Conference participants Jesuit Father Roland Lessops and Franciscan Sister Janet Fearns, who each spent many years working in rural Africa, told me of their frustration at the lack of "balanced representation."
In one of his documents on this issue, Father Lessops warned of the "propaganda and distortion" surrounding "the argument of the proponents of GMOs." Ambassador Nicholson too recognized these misgivings. "Unfortunately, efforts to explore biotechnology's potential have been hindered by misinformation and misunderstandings fomented by anti-biotech activists," he said. "Scientific evidence has been overwhelming that biotech can play a critical role in the developing world."
To date, the Vatican has taken no specific stance on the issue, even though the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has published a study document and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace sponsored an intense conference of this kind last November. Bishop Sánchez Sorondo pointed out that "the conclusions of the academy do not represent the official teachings of the Church, so they are free to be debated."
Throughout the conference, the debate focused on ethical, environmental and economical concerns. Father Lessops aired concerns that there is a division within the Church on the topic of biotechnology. He noted that "there are bishops' conferences and Catholic institutions in many parts of the world -- in the Philippines, South Africa, even parts of the U.S., who oppose GMOs."
One of the speakers representing the Church in an official capacity was Legionary Father Gonzalo Miranda, dean of the bioethics school at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University. He told me that he believes that the division comes from "social ideology and different data input."
Foes of biotechnology question whether it is ethically right for us to tamper with nature. Father Miranda supported the scientists in the hall, such as AgBio founder C.S. Prakash, when he noted that "humankind has been selecting and manipulating plant and animal food stocks for millenniums."
Referring to the Book of Genesis, Father Miranda observed how humankind was created in the "image and likeness of God" and has been given dominion over all living things. "In this sense," the priest said, "God has made man the 'gardener of creation' who should work with responsibility to cultivate and take care of it." He notes, however, that the Bible points out that humanity does not have the right to "abuse or do damage to nature." Yet this is precisely what others believe GMOs do.
Father Rodrigo Peret, for instance, believes that many of the solutions to problems are already available in nature itself. Father Peret, who attended the conference, heads the Franciscan Justice and Peace office. He says that we do not need new biotechnology as it threatens health and biodiversity. "Technical solutions like genetic engineering overshadow real social and environmental problems that cause hunger," he insisted.
Botanist Peter Raven, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences and speaker at the conference, gave us examples of what has been achieved with various organisms, including the so-called golden rice. This is a grain enriched with vitamin A, the lack of which causes many diseases in Africa. "We are really able to produce the plants and animals that we want," he said.
Of such "scientifically precise" GMOs, he noted: "It would be very foolhardy to not use them, particularly in a world that needs to feed so many people."
Raven believes that many people opposed to GMOs "don't really have the right information about the new science, and then I think they become involved with social issues." He quickly added: "This is not to deny the social problems, the international trade problems, the intellectual property issues. But they apply to any technology, they are not unique to GMOs."
Many groups working in the Third World, including that of Father Lessops, say they suspect the profit crusade behind many of the companies involved. They see the "imposition" of GMOs as the multinationals' way of preying on desperate rural communities. "The whole genetic engineering approach," says Father Lessops, "is not really for feeding the poor people in the world, but for feeding the stakeholders in the big wealthy companies ... so I think that is the motive that's driving it."
Father Miranda, however, noted: "Many people say that as these technologies are produced today by multinationals, it is capitalism and this is bad. But they don't understand that, first, profit is not bad in itself." Bishop Sánchez Sorondo quoted Recommendation 12 of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences' study document: "Intellectual property rights should not inhibit a wide access to beneficial applications of scientific knowledge."
Ambassador Nicholson acknowledged that money could be made from intellectual property rights. "If you took that away," he said on Vatican Radio last Thursday, "we wouldn't have penicillin."
A farmer who became a believer in GMOs was Sabina Kohza. The South African farmer, a one-time skeptic of GMOs, presented her 2-year-old success story with the modified crops to the Rome meeting. "I was against crop-engineering myself, but then I tried it," she said.
The result: Kohza said she has gotten wealthier and healthier. "I can tell you that I am a very proud consumer, grower and proud rural woman in agriculture who is growing genetically modified maize," she said, smiling.
Father Miranda referred to the writings of John Paul II where he says that "it is necessary to maintain an attitude of prudence and to explore, with a keen eye, the nature and manners of the various technologies applied." Scientists, says the Pope, should use their "capacity for the service of all humanity."
In this sense, Father Miranda cautioned that we should not fall into the trap of thinking that GMOs can resolve all the world's problems of poverty and underdevelopment. Rather, the coming of GMOs can be "viewed as one of the tools in the toolbox to fix this concern."
GM Rice Controversy Boils Over
- Luigi Jorio, Swiss Info, October 1, 2004 http://www.swissinfo.org/sen/swissinfo.html?siteSect=105&sid=5119204
Golden Rice is genetically altered and contains vitamin B and iron. Scientists and environmentalists continue to be at loggerheads over a genetically modified strain of rice developed in Switzerland.
Its supporters say "golden rice" is a milestone in the history of genetic engineering, but opponents have accused them of making empty promises.
"This is intellectual fraud," said Clément Tolusso, press officer for the environmental group, Greenpeace, in western Switzerland.
The continued debate over the pros and cons of golden rice comes as the United Nations celebrates the International Year of Rice. In 2000 a group of researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich succeeded in transmitting to a grain of rice the ability to produce beta-carotene – which the body coverts into vitamin A – and to increase iron content.
In Asia, where rice is the main food for millions of people, vitamin A and iron deficiency is a serious problem. These essential dietary components are found in animal products, fruits and vegetables, which are not always available to poor families. A lack of these nutrients can cause anaemia, vision loss or a weakened immune system, and is one reason for the high rate of mortality and illness among women and children in developing countries.
Those behind golden rice believe the genetically modified organism (GMO) marks an important step in the fight against malnutrition.
"The idea is to provide a food that can at least partially make up for these deficiencies," Rainer Holzinger, a scientist at the Institute for Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, told swissinfo.
But critics of golden rice and GM foods in general argue that these products are not the answer. "The problem is not that there isn't enough food for everyone," says Tolusso. "It has to do with the accessibility and stockpiling of food."
A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated that the real causes of hunger and malnutrition are poverty and lack of access to food resources. And these are two problems that transgenic foods do not address, say opponents. Greenpeace also claims that an adult would have to eat at least 12 times the average intake of 300g of rice a day to get the daily recommended amount of vitamin A.
Campaigners are also concerned about the wider implications of what might happen should golden rice and other GMOs take the place of traditional crops. Varieties created and selected through genetic engineering are richer in nutrients and more resistant, which makes them more competitive than natural strains.
But these artificial products are the property of the company that invents them. Swiss biotech firm Syngenta, the world's leading agribusiness, holds the patent in the case of golden rice. To fight this "undue appropriation", around 30 Asian non-governmental organisations have written numerous letters of protest.
Farmers in developing countries, who ought to be the greatest beneficiaries of these innovations, have also come out against a globalised agricultural system dominated by multinationals such as Syngenta and Monsanto of the United States.
But researchers insist the aim of GMOs is not to create monopolies or to introduce new farming techniques, but to try to improve nutrition and health in many developing countries. "There are various possible approaches," said Holzinger. "Transgenic rice may be a legitimate answer."
Genetically Modified Crops: Their Development, Uses, and Risks
Edited by G. H. Liang and Daniel Z. Skinner, Hard Cover, ISBN: 1-56022-280-8, $69.95; Soft Cover
ISBN: 1-56022-281-6, $49.95.
College faculty can request an examination copy at http://www.haworthpress.com/
Gain state-of-the-art knowledge of new research and developments in transgenic technology!
Genetically Modified Crops: Their Development, Uses, and Risks provides groundbreaking information on the integration of foreign DNA into the nucleus of a plant cell to produce a positive transformation. This volume details methods of gene delivery, laboratory tools and techniques to increase success rates, and the benefits, risks, and limitations of these methods. Authors at the forefront of this developing technology provide a comprehensive overview of transgenic crops and vital research on specific plant genera that have undergone transgenic transformation.
Agricultural biotechnology has become a national and necessary mainstay of farming and food production, and this book is an important scientific tool to keep you informed of the latest protocols of genetic transformation. This book also outlines the goals that scientists are striving to reach, such as targeted gene expression where the gene only expresses itself at a certain time in the plant's life cycle, but disappears before human consumption. One of the greatest concerns is maintaining the welfare of the consumer, and in this volume the authors repeatedly discuss their findings in terms of safety for human consumption.
With Genetically Modified Crops: Their Development, Uses, and Risks, you'll explore:
* the history of crop transformation and the techniques most commonly used for gene delivery, including biolistic bombardment and Agrobacterium-mediated transformation
* various methods of determining successful gene transfer in putative transgenic plants, such as blotting, functional assaying, and progeny testing
* the utilization of recombinase-directed plant transformation to improve faithful and consistent gene delivery and transference
* the successful reproduction of an insecticidal protein from chicken eggs in transgenic corn--and its benefits to society
* the current status of risk assessment and examples of incidents that have raised the level of concern about genetically modified plants outside the lab
Reviews:"Comprehensive. . . . Excellent. . . . Useful to graduate and advanced undergraduate students, as well as the interested public. . . . Full of high-quality information and illustrated with clear figures and tables. . . . Appropriate as a textbook for advanced courses in plant transformation and as supplemental reading for undergraduate courses in plant breeding and other related fields. For students who desire to apply a method, the book provides many examples of pitfalls associated with particular techniques. It can also be a useful tool to help students understand research results published in journal articles." - Suleiman S. Bughara, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Michigan State University, East Lansing
"A useful reference for all researchers working on the improvement of crops through plant transformation. Breeders of all field crops, vegetable crops, horticultural crops, and turf grasses can get an overview of the progress of genetic engineering efforts for a particular crop. Molecular biologists and cell/tissue culture specialists will find three informative chapters on the methods, strategies, and mechanisms of transgene integration." - Richard R. C. Wang, PhD, Research Geneticist, USDA-ARS Forage & Range Research Laboratory, Logan, Utah
Fred Gould Wins Humboldt Award
- http://www.agbiotechnet.com/ September 28, 2004
Fred Gould, whose work has played a pivotal role in determining how best to use emerging, transgenic pest management technology, is the 2004 recipient of the Humboldt Award. Gould, a North Carolina State University entomologist. recieved the award yesterday, which is presented annually to the person judged to have made the most significant contribution to American agriculture during the previous five years. With the award comes a $15,000 cash prize, which Gould will donate to the NCSU Libraries and the Department of Entomology.
In addition, a student at the recipient's institution is chosen to receive a $5,000 Alfred Toepfer scholarship to be used to study agriculture in Germany. Melanie Bateman, a doctoral student from Weaverville, N.C., studying entomology-behavioral biology, will receive this scholarship. She plans to use it to study plant defense chemicals at the Max Plank Institute for Chemical Ecology.
Gould, William Neal Reynolds Professor of Entomology, was recognized for groundbreaking work on the development by insects of resistance to Bt crops. He and colleagues also developed strategies to help ensure that insects do not develop resistance.
Gould was among the first to show that insects could develop resistance to transgenic crops; he and colleagues then developed strategies to prevent insects from developing resistance. Gould also helped inform national policy toward biotechnology by serving on several committees of the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council that dealt with biotechnology issues. He also served on an Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory
Patents: Misguided Attack Threatens Growth
- John Kilama, Business Day (Johannesburg), Sept. 30, 2004
As the World Intellectual Property Organisation meets this week in Geneva, intellectual property still appears to be under attack just about everywhere, even by those who would most benefit from it. The main focus is on patents, which are blamed for keeping prescription drug prices high in the US, and out of reach in poor countries.
Many believe the system is not working, and have posited alternatives. But they are wrong. Their efforts to "reform" the patent system would neither give people greater access to drugs nor help spur their invention. On the contrary, changing the system would undermine the foundations of economic growth, and do nothing to promote long-term innovation or improve public health.
Those who posit "alternative business models" believe the current system is more about maintaining world economic power than stimulating innovation.
They believe a system that encourages inventors to put their inventions into the public domain in return for a limited period of exclusivity (which gives inventors the possibility of making a return on their investment) only advances the interest of powerful corporations driven by profit, not public good.
Their alternatives are generally based on systems of shared information, such as the human genome project (funded by charitable donations and taxes).
Unfortunately, these critics have misinterpreted the effect of intellectual property rights on pharmaceuticals and other key sectors. If the poorest nations of Africa or Asia cannot pay for prescription drugs, it has nothing to do with intellectual property rights. It is because they have failed to climb aboard the train of economic development - which, in large part, depends on intellectual property rights as a prime locomotive.
Where intellectual property rights have been most scrupulously implemented, rapid economic growth has followed all across the world. Where intellectual property rights have been flouted or implemented halfheartedly, economic growth has languished.
Where was the innovation and growth in the Soviet bloc? Only in the military, which faced no competition and had huge incentives to succeed (the threat of Siberian salt mines focuses the mind).
In recent years, many countries have recognised the importance of protecting intellectual property rights, and have encouraged the development of their own "knowledge-based" industries. Mexico, Brazil and China experienced explosive growth in patent applications during the past decade. In countries where natural resources are scant, such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore, intellectual property rights have become a key component of long-term economic strategy.
If intellectual property rights were responsible for poor access to medicines, you might expect off-patent drugs to be plentiful in Africa. On the contrary, many of the most critical drugs that Africa still lacks have been off-patent for 30 or 40 years. This includes most antidiarrhoeal drugs; most antimalarials; most antibiotics; most derivatives of penicillin and cephalosporin; many antihypertensive drugs; and practically all antipyretic drugs. If intellectual property rights are the problem, why are so many African children still dying from diarrhoea?
Countries that lack patent laws do not have better health care either. India has been a patent-free nirvana since the 1970s, and will only begin granting patents next year. Despite the presence of thousands of companies copying patented pharmaceutical products, few people have access to drugs. And even though two of the main generic AIDS drug suppliers are Indian, just 1% of people living with HIV/AIDS there take antiretrovirals. The vast bulk of India's AIDS drugs go to foreign markets, not its own.
The human genome project can hardly serve as an alternative model to intellectual property. While it has provided information with potential use, products have yet to be created. When they are, they will be patent-protected. In any case, if prices of drugs are unaffordable, governments can impose price controls.
Moreover, public health problems in poor countries wouldn't evaporate even if drugs were free and widely available. Increased access to drugs is only one pillar of an effective strategy for improving public health. Other essential elements include enhancing nutrition, improving political stability and putting an end to the abuse of women.
For countries such as Brazil, Argentina, India and SA, intellectual property rights are already benefiting local innovators and creators, leading to economic growth and an improvement in the general health of the population. Better protection for intellectual property rights in these countries would probably improve the situation further. Intellectual property rights are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Dr Kilama is the Uganda-born president of the Global Bioscience Development Institute, a nonprofit training institute based in Wilmington, Delaware, US.